I have taken part in two radio debates this week with two Conservative MPs. The intention of BBC Radio Five Live and BBC Radio London was that I should have a lively debate over a possible media ban on “hate preachers”.
I was asked to appear partly because I was a Lobby Correspondent during a similar ban on the IRA between 1988-1994 and hold the view that such bans are very difficult to operate, are counter-productive and are an offence to our democracy. Even earlier in my career I resisted a full blown campaign against my decision to interview the National Front on one of my programmes.
This debate about how the media should deal with “hate preachers” follows the despicable murder of Lee Rigby and how far such dastardly actions are inspired by people who pervert the message of Islam.
In the hours of media discussion that followed the horror of Woolwich, broadcasters included a small contribution from Anjem Choudary. He referred to Lee Rigby’s murder as “one death, but if you add up the number killed and tortured by the British government, it is in millions.”
It is easy to see why the Home Secretary would be angered by such opinions. Most people find them highly offensive. But Theresa May went on to question the decision to give him air time and before we knew it the papers were full of suggestions that the government might use the media regulator Ofcom to implement a ban.
I was expecting my Tory MP opponents, Tobias Ellwood on Five Live, and Colonel Bob Stewart on Radio London to argue the Home Secretary’s case. But they didn’t. Both debates took the same course. As we discussed the practicalities and possible consequences, both men seemed to back away from a media ban on “hate preachers.”
The fact is that we have within our democracy people like Anjem Choudary who openly despise our liberal way of life and parliamentary system. I imagine he would like Britain run as a theocracy under sharia law. He praised the 9/11 and 7/7 terrorists. Awful, but the question is should such people be silenced on mainstream broadcasts?
Some organisations are proscribed because of their policies. Incitement to violence and racial hatred is already an offence. If Choudary and his ilk are guilty of these offences, then they should be in prison. If they keep on the right side of the law, then editors and programme producers are left with the decision whether in limited and controlled circumstances to allow their point of view to be heard.
If this is to be changed we could have Ofcom deciding which side of the line individuals, not otherwise proscribed, fall. The press has recently been up in arms over a supposed threat from Lord Leveson to their editorial freedom. Any paper advocating such a difficult role for Ofcom will be being hypocritical.
Apart from the difficulty of implementation there are other issues. The IRA ban was far from perfect but it came about in the pre internet age. It is the fundamentalist websites where ranting texts are accompanied by graphic images where young people are principally influenced, not by a balanced debate on Newsnight.
We must also be careful not to allow people who have no respect for our democracy, to chip away at its values and finally there must always be space to debate British foreign and military policy.